A few weeks ago, I ventured down to Baltimore to compete in the 2019 NPC East Coast Bodybuilding Championships (over 50). The show was my fifth show that I have ever done. My first bodybuilding show was when I was a senior in high school (Mr. Teenage DC) and then I went to college, played football, powerlifted and fought some, but then I decided to compete in bodybuilding again in 2012, and since then have done three more shows.
Besides football, I have always loved bodybuilding the most and have loved it for over 40 years. No, it's not a sport, I know this, and it may seem odd to some and there is no ball or a person to chase or a bat to swing or competition that culminates on game day. But even though it is not a sport, bodybuilding holds a special place in my heart because of the drive and the will and the planning and the suffering and the "set yourself apart" mindset that comes with pre contest training. The competition day, to me, doesn't matter as much as the training, the 8-12 weeks of diet and cardio and weightlifting and getting all of this in with life still demanding what real life still demands. It is the challenge of all of that stuff that makes it worthwhile for me.
But I have a special relationship with bodybuilding, and sometimes hesitate to speak of it too much, bodybuilding is that special to me. Maybe when you try to explain why something is so special and magical that it loses something. Hemingway used to talk about that when folks asked him what his book meant or how far along he was getting with a book. It ruins it some, he thought, if he dissected everything for everyone. And I feel the same way at times. Like I want to keep this special secret all to myself. No reason, really, except for what it all means to me. Like it is all mine or something. I can attempt to explain it: You see, training to me is essential. I have done it for 40 years and don’t plan to stop. But in the last ten years or so, I have delved into more of the spiritual aspect of bodybuilding training and what it means to me. My day is not complete unless I train, that is a given. But the time during the training is what is most special. I have come to realize that the training session for me is a time where I go somewhere else in my head. I guess that is my answer to meditation or something, but I don’t want to really label it. It’s just my time, where all else that is outside in the world ceases to exist. Where each rep is test of what I have inside of me and there is no pain or burning during the set, or actually, there may be, but I can get so deep into the set and flip those feelings into welcoming feelings. Meaning that I can tell myself that the burning is good, that it means growth, that I want the burning to happen so that I can conquer it after staying inside of it for awhile. And I do many sets with my eyes closed, picturing the muscle working, making sure that I put the most tension possible on the working muscle, bringing the insertion of the muscle towards the origin. And when I am done, I feel joyous, I feel cleansed. If you watched me work out, you would say that I train hard outwardly, but it is more than that, it is what is going on inside of me that can't be seen that really makes it so special. I don’t talk at all during training, I don’t want to be distracted. I mean, I will acknowledge someone if they say hello to me between sets or something, but no conversations that will take me away from the task at hand. I don’t care if you had a rough night or your girl broke up with you or something. It is a waste of time, and you can not get that time back. Just train and shut up and you may actually get something out of it.
I have never had the ability to focus on more than one thing at a time. Which doesn't help in many aspects of life, but it does help when I need that type of single minded focus to reach a goal or to really concentrate on something important to me. For instance, I like to split up my year on what I focus on. From late October until the end of February, I focus on waterfowl hunting. I have a Black Labrador that I train for hunting and I hunt geese and ducks as much as I can during this time. It's really all that I think about during the fall and winter. Keeping the gun clean, making sure the decoys are good to go, the dog is taken care of, checking the migration reports, etc. Single minded. I still lift weights during this time, mind you. I don't miss workouts. But my diet is all over the place and my sleep is way off and the days are long and cold and I really, really love every minute of it.
When I come out of hunting season, my mind turns to getting in better shape. And in the last two years, instead of just getting in better shape, I have decided to compete in a bodybuilding show. It's the goal , the deadline that fires me up. Once I decide on doing a bodybuilding show, everything ramps up in intensity. The training is always the same intensity-wise, but I do add in some extra stuff like calves and rear delts and my training definitely takes on more meaning, knowing that I will be standing on stage in my underwear showing my muscles to hundreds of people. I switch the training up sometimes, but usually, my week goes like this: Monday I train legs. Tuesday is chest day, Wednesday is back, Thursday is shoulders and calves, Friday are set aside for arms. I don't warm up much, maybe a set of light dumbbells and then I will get started. Usually I do 15 sets a body part, for 6-20 reps. Although at various times in my bodybuilding training, I may switch up stuff totally. This is where experience and instinctive training comes in to play. I may do all sets beyond failure and train like Yates with less sets but more” intensifiers” meaning sets with forced reps and negatives and rest pause. But usually it’s around 15 sets per bodypart. All sets are done to muscular failure, meaning that I can't perform another rep in good form. I rarely train for more than a half hour.
Here is a sample of my leg workout: I do one warmup set on the leg extension machine, then I begin. I do 5 sets of 12 reps here, focusing on pushing at the top and flexing hard. Then I go to leg curls, either seated or standing, 5 sets of 12 reps here also. Then I go over to the hack squat machine and perform 5 sets of 20 reps. This is always a good challenge after the leg extension and leg curls, and it never fails to blow up my legs like crazy when I am done. Rest periods? Usually never longer than a minute. More than that and I feel like I am wasting time. That workout itself takes maybe 25 minutes, and usually stagger out of the gym after those hack squats.
The biggest change during this time is in the diet and cardio. For this bodybuilding show, I started around 12 weeks out. I am not the type of person who can ease into things. I want to just go, get to the nuts and bolts of the whole thing and get going. So for diet, I cut out everything that isn't going to help me get closer to my goal. I go to the store and buy ground beef and sweet potatoes. I start off with 3-6 sweet potatoes a day and around 2-3 pounds of ground beef a day. I do this for around 5-7 weeks, and I still have one night a week where I eat what I want. I don't really count the macros, although I do have a general idea of where I am calorie and protein -wise. During this dieting phase, there is no cheating unless scheduled. I drink Crystal Light, water, and diet soda. No alcohol or anything with any calories. I really despise water by itself, so I tend to gravitate towards flavored water when I can. At around the five week mark, I switch to the first meal being two beef patties and a sweet potato, but the other 2-3 meals are cod, spinach and maybe a sweet potato. No more cheat meals from 5 weeks in. During this time, my calories drop pretty dramatically, getting close on some days to 1,000-1500 calories. There is not much to a cod fillet, although I do like the taste and I mix it with spinach and some hot mustard and it's actually quite good.
As far as cardio goes, I like to ride a recumbent bike. I usually start off at the 12 week mark doing 30 minutes of the bike in the morning and 30 minutes in the afternoon. Then I increase the sessions until I am doing anywhere from 90 minutes a day to 2.5 hours a day. Cardio is not hard, just time consuming. I watch videos and listen to heavy metal when I ride. I always choose songs that I like to listen to for each show. Last year, it was Hatebreed and for this years show, it was Death Metal, specifically a lot of Bloodbath. When riding the bike, I just want to sweat here, not go crazy with interval training that may make inroads into my free weight workouts. Plus with my carbs so low, I don't want to go crazy here and lose muscle. I get a little nuts with the cardio and there are times that I am not sure if doing more is essential, but I usually do it anyway. Much of all of this, as I get closer to the show, smacks of irrational thinking. You must understand that you can get so deep into all of this that you can't really think for yourself after a certain time. You get nuts and so inner focused and you can’t really be objective of your condition and you think you look like shit and then the lighting changes in the next room and you think that you look pretty good, that is until you go into the next room and look in the mirror there. I know it seems crazy, and it is, but it is just the way that it is with me. The challenge is to find a balance here: the sweet spot where you are keeping the muscle that you have earned and stripping away the body fat at the same time.
In the upcoming Part 2 of this bodybuilding article, I will go over the mental aspects of dieting and training and the challenges therein and how the last few weeks shape up with all that is involved. Also, I will discuss how the competition went and all the little stuff that you need to be prepared for when getting ready to compete in a bodybuilding show.
About The Author
Jim Steel has been immersed in athletics and the Iron Game for most of his life. He has been a college football player and coach, powerlifter, Muay Thai fighter and is currently a competitive bodybuilder. In 1999, Steel was named Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coordinator at the University of Pennsylvania, and moved up to Head Strength and Conditioning Coordinator in 2004. He is the owner of the blog basbarbell.com, and is a motivational speaker, frequent podcast guest and the author of two books, Basbarbell Book of Programs and Steel Reflections. Steel is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist with the National Strength and Conditioning Association.